Englishmen, and Other Aborigines

March 07, 2007

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I was about ten years old when my school class was asked to fill out a form listing our basic details. Name, address, we were filling it all out with no trouble—until we came upon the question regarding our religious affiliation. Sure, the one or two Roman Catholics knew, and passed right along, but the rest of us looked at each other, confused. Commotion burst out across the room as we tried to extract the correct answer from one another. “If you don’t know what religion you are,” our teacher interrupted sternly, “then you’re Church of England.” The logic of her proposition escaped me, but my parents later assured me that not only I, but our entire family was in fact Church of England, despite never having attended church, or read so much as a single sentence of the Bible.

The vague and mysterious quality of religion must have impressed me because I developed a curiosity and eventually an insatiable appetite for anything religious (ones where had to do something that is, even it was just turn up). Roman Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, Tantric Hinduism, even plain old Zoroastrianism – I flirted with them all. Of course, I celebrated Christmas, Easter, etc., with my family, but, as with the vast majority of English families, these events were not religious per se. It is an uncomfortable confession, but I must admit, I believe that I was envious of the ethnic minorities. They not only had their customs, they had their religion. No one could take away their Holy Days.

You will imagine how delighted I was recently when I discovered that I myself have become a member of an ethnic minority, and, better still, have joined the lofty likes of the “aborigine Australian” and the “native American;” yes, I am no longer British, but am rather “Indigenous British.” How did I discover this? By cracking some Davinci Code like puzzle? No, I simply kept hearing this strange phrase, “indigenous British,” on B.B.C radio. It flowed so naturally, and from so many different types of people, but I wondered if I had heard correctly at first. Perhaps they had said “ingenious British.” True, it is an unusual day indeed, when the British are praised by the people of Britain, but still I wondered. To confirm I entered the phrase into the B.B.C. website, and lo and behold, there I was! Indigenous-British-me. My outlook on life has been entirely altered. Naturally, I am sad that I shall not live to see the reservations or casinos that will undoubtedly be granted to our descendants by a future British government, though I am looking forward to the revival of our culture, albeit on a smaller scale.

Aside from these future advantages, however, there is something utterly ominous about this designation. A few decades ago, politicians promoted the idea that immigrants in Britain would assimilate into traditional British culture. Today such an idea would now be considered terribly politically incorrect, if not openly racist, but it was also a proposition that was also entirely factually wrong, and one that had been disproved since time immemorial. Far from being given a place of honor, by and large it is the indigenous people that are assimilated if not disappeared into the foreign culture. Despite the literal meaning of ‘aborigine,’ ‘native,’ and ‘indigenous’ connecting the people indicated to the land, these words connotes ‘inferior,’ ‘backward.’

Not so long ago Australia waged a secretive campaign to assimilate the natives of that country to the point where their race would no longer exist. Native Americans suffered what they have referred to as “genocide” by the hand of white Europeans (though we white Europeans love to pretend that it was the Americans who did it). Still today, the Zoroastrians – once native to Persia – live mostly in India, and number only a few million. More depressing, still, is the fact that the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people, now count for only about fifteen thousand. We worry about polar bears – and rightly so – but according to UNESCO over 50% of the world’s 6000 languages are endangered and one dies out completely every two weeks.

Language is a particular problem in Britain. Many immigrants to the country do not learn English, which marginalizes the new immigrants, which, after a period of time, is likely to create ghettos of the non-English speaking. It also downgrades the English language in the very country that created it. Indeed, England seems to have no pride in the English language, and consequently the level of spoken and written language among the youth seems to be at an all time low, with too many teenagers lacing their sentences with “like” and punctuating them with “man.” With many teenagers learning the English language primarily from gangster rap, “Bling” has become so pervasive that in 2003 Tom Watson was forced to attempt to correct the situation in a manner that could seem effortless only to a Labour M.P.: “Cut it with the bling bling and do something for the community, man.”

I understand. We need our languages to keep pace with the times. We need words for “computer,” “internet,” “MySpace,” etc., so why the fuss? So what if young English people cannot speak English properly? What if they can’t read the newspaper or Taki’s Top Drawer? So what if they think a semicolon is a disease? After all, English is spreading all over the globe, becoming the language of commerce. Well, there are several good reasons that have nothing to do with commerce. First of all, a common language has been one of the defining factors of the nation generally, along with a common religion, etc. A lack of appreciation for language ultimately disenfranchises one from the deeper culture, because language encapsulates that culture. It is for this reason that the Scots and the Welsh are so passionate about keeping their languages alive.

Modernity creeps in at the most unexpected places, however. Cockney rhyming slang, (a language made by substituting English words for other English words or phrases that rhyme with it, spoken by persons living within an area of London in which the sound of bells of Bow church can be heard), has been updated in a way that many of us might find objectionable. Yes, as if she’s not in the news enough with her newly shaven head, that ambassador of rock ‘n’ roll suicide, “Britney Spears,” is now Cockney Rhyming Slang for either “tears” or “beers” depending on your preference. Next time you’re in a bar and it’s your turn to buy a round of drinks, you can use it like this, “no, no, it’s my turn to get in the Britneys” (abbreviation is used a lot in Cockney Rhyming Slang).

There are other indigenous languages spoken in Britain Cornish, Norman French, and Manx for example, though these are spoken only by a few hundred people, and are consequently on the UNESCO endangered list. Sadly, one rarely meets an English person who has even read so much as a single line of Old English, and, on being questioned, most insist that Shakespeare’s writing is Old English (it is actually early modern, of course). Recently I heard a British national of African decent moaning on the B.B.C. that not only had his ancestors been enslaved but that the English education system had not even taught him his ancient language – Yoruba. Now, that’s a man I can relate to. We indigenous British are in exactly the same situation, except in England we increasingly see the English language spoken poorly or not at all. In response to this growing problem, Conservative leader David Cameron has said:

[The ideology of multiculturalism] lies behind the growth in the translation of public documents and signs into other languages. What ought to be about helping people to access essential public services has in some cases become an end in itself… making it less of an incentive for people to learn English and participate fully in our national life. All of these things just create resentment and suspicion. And they undermine the very thing that should have served as a focus for national unity - our sense of British identity

We’ve got to make sure that people learn English, and we’ve got to make sure that kids are taught British history properly at school.

I believe that the Government should redirect some of the money it currently spends on translation into additional English classes. This would help people integrate into society and broaden their opportunities. But the Government seems to be going in the opposite direction. Recently it announced that many new immigrants will no longer be able to get free English lessons. Quite how that helps bring the country together I don’t know. We must make sure that all our citizens can speak to each other in our shared national language.

Perhaps because the English – unlike the Scottish or Welsh or even Cornish – have lost all memory and knowledge of their ancient language, and have only a vague idea of their ancient culture, that England more than Wales or Scotland can be equated with liberalism. The Welsh and the Scots want to preserve their language and culture, while the English, in a feeling of intellectual superiority, feel that the tiny island of the United Kingdom should be multilingual, just as it should be multicultural.  Or, at least that has been the trend.

In his paper, “When Was Wales” (published in Nationalism in Europe – 1815 to the Present), Gwyn A. Williams notes correctly that the old Welsh language is entirely accessible to the Welshman, while Old English is entirely inaccessible to the modern Englishman (if he has even heard of Old English). He makes a poignant and depressing statement:

“The British nation and the British state are clearly entering a process of dissolution, into Europe or the mid-Atlantic or a post imperial fog. Britain has begun its long march out of history.

“How ironic it seems then, that in Referendum, General Election and European Election in 1979, it was the Welsh who registered their country as the most passionately and totally British of all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and about a half of Northern Ireland. We Welsh look like being the last of the British. There is some logic in this. We were, after all, the first.”

I do not suggest that the indigenous British will be physically eradicated, but the term, in my mind, is a very definite marker of things very unfortunate to come. Noticeably, the indigenous British seem to display some of the symptoms of the traditional “native” population. Alcoholism and binge drinking are widely associated with both.  Depression and defeatism seem also a common characteristic, undoubtedly in part because there is a palpable sense of loss and decline – loss of land and decline of social, cultural, and political significance. The Native American, Australian, Ainu, etc., have lost ‘their’ land, while the British have lost their empire, and feel squeezed at home by the recent waves of immigrants. Between 1991 and 2001 immigration accounted for over half of Britain’s population growth.

French intellectual Dominique Moisi has said recently that Europe suffers from a culture of fear, brought on by the devastation of the First and Second World War, and propagated today by a fear of immigration, terrorism, and a deference of control over one’s life to the politicians, among other things.  Moisi’s diagnosis of the reasons for our angst is doubtless largely correct.

In regard to terrorism, there appears to be a far greater penetration of radicalization among British Muslims than among American Muslims. It is generally suggested that this can be accounted for by the fact that the majority of British Muslims are either the poor who came from Pakistan to make a new, more economically prosperous life, or their children, while American Muslims were generally more affluent and educated even before they arrived. This might be so, but there is surely another reason. American culture remains religious (mostly Christian) to a very large degree, while Britain is by and large atheist. A religious ethos is so evident in American politics, emanating from the Republican Party (which has won the last two elections, no matter by how small a majority). While President Bush’s core constituents may be born-again Christians, he has not couched his ideas in a specifically Christian verbiage. President Bush mentions ‘God,’ not ‘Jesus’ in his speeches, and they have, as such, resonated with conservatives of different religions, including, undoubtedly, Muslims.

While this may be an electioneering strategy to some extent, the U.S.’s self perception as a “melting pot,” undoubtedly necessitates this approach within public politics where religious ideas are invoked. As Britain is now learning, immigrants tend to preserve traditions that derive from their motherland, while the motherland over time may allow, or even encourage, its own folkways to disappear into history. As a nation of immigrants, America is, ironically, a more traditional and religious country than Britain, even though it is often considered more progressive.

In regard to Moisi’s observation that people are at least beginning to feel disenfranchised from politics, one must likewise consider culture. One might think that, now we have attained “indigenous” status, liberals will grant us the same sort of respect that they would any other native culture. Yet, the Indigenous British political leaders constantly infer that “Indigenous British” culture is either irrelevant, offensive to newcomers, primitive, or not really culture at all. Such openly expressed contempt—once expressed widely, and crassly against other indigenous cultures—now seems reserved for the pale-skinned tribes alone.

Though our politicians are willfully unaware of the fact, “indigenousness” is more than a matter of one’s ancestors having stayed on the same land for longer than later arrivals, and the erosion of one’s culture is far more destructive than the threat of terrorism. In its positive sense, the term “indigenous,” is to be understood as a matter of culture, and particularly of being the most direct and authentic link to the culture of that land through the ages. Native people have been treated sickeningly throughout history, but where they have been revered they have been so for their culture, not for their location on the map.

Indeed, just as we have become the “Indigenous British” we are told by our politicians that “that Britishness… is not based on ethnicity and race” (meaning that of the Indigenous British), but is rather a set of values so nebulous that any ethnic or racial group, country, or religion could lay claim to it – which, of course, is precisely the point. There is no British characteristic, history or culture, so we need not wonder why we are celebrating Dawali rather than Guy Fawkes.  Britishness, according to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, is founded on “a commitment to liberty for all, a commitment to social responsibility shown by all, and a commitment to fairness to all.” After the terrorist bombing in the U.S. and Britain Muslim leaders said exactly the same thing about Islam. But the description applies just as well to nominally communist China, France, America, or elsewhere.

It is perfectly obvious that a culture is not “based on ethnicity or race.” Culture is developed over time – usually a long time – but culture and ethnicity generally go hand in hand: even in regard to religion we can think of Taoism and the Chinese, Zen and the Japanese, Zoroastrianism and the Persians, Hinduism and the Indians. Culture and peoples create each other. As the German philosopher Oswald Spengler once said, “… the ‘people’ is a unit of the soul. The great events of history were not really achieved by peoples; they themselves created the peoples. Every act alters the soul of the doer.” It is quite possible for immigrants to come to Britain and become model British citizens, but that cannot detract from the fact that the indigenous British created over a millennium or more that culture which we call “British,” and that must be allowed to remain a matter of pride for the indigenous British, just as the Chinese person should be proud of Chinese culture, and the Indian or Indian descendant should be proud of Hinduism and Indian culture generally. And so on.

Nevertheless, traditional British culture is being slowly whittled away from above, sometimes with the best of intentions and sometimes with the sole intention of replacing the indigenous traditions altogether. The annual midsummer’s day Druid festival, celebrated at Stonehenge, was banned by the Thatcher government, because the Druid followers were perceived to be ‘scruffy hippies.’ Prime minister Winston Churchill had once been a member of a fraternity of Druids, but perhaps by that point they were scruffy hippies – but, at least they were keeping alive at least some knowledge our ancient heritage (albeit in a revived form).  It is ironic indeed that, after the discovery of the New World, British scholars – and later the British public – believed they saw in the figure and culture of the native American the life of their own ancestors, the Celts and the Druid priests, and accorded each quite a bit of respect partly for this reason.)

Count forward to 2006: the London borough of Tower Hamlets replaced the traditional indigenous British celebration of Guy Fawkes with that of the Bengali festival of Dawali.

A less dramatic, yet more thorough erosion has beset Britain’s Christian tradition, especially that of the eternally innocuous Church of England – to which I have already alluded. Just before Christmas 2006 I heard several very nice people debating on B.B.C. radio whether the visible celebration of Christmas (in our traditionally Christian country) was offensive to Muslims, or others (including atheists) in our multicultural society. The conclusion seemed to be no, though largely because, it was suggested, Christmas really was not a religious celebration any more, and was now all about gift giving – they neglected to mention that the tradition also includes getting as drunk as any scruffy hippy. Their observation was largely, sadly, correct. Ten years ago or so the seasonal shopping sales started on Boxing Day (December 26th), now they begin on Christmas Day (which, in case any British politician is reading this, is December 25th).

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